The Students’ “Joy-Night”

Professor Joanna Bourke, Department of History, Classics, and Archaeology, recalls a period in history when student expression was far more rambunctious and gave way to the ritual of ‘ragging’

Ragging

‘Ragging’

Once a year between the 1880s and the 1930s, Birkbeck students went wild. In what was called the “Joy Night”, they threw their energies into a boisterous ritual that saw hundreds of fancifully dressed (often in gender-bending ways) students waylaying the Foundation Day speaker prior to his lecture. They would then ceremoniously cart him to the College’s theatre, just off Fetter Lane. The noise was deafening: bells were rung, whistles blown, clappers thwacked, and rattles vigorously shaken. This was a very public ritual: in Fleet Street and Fetter Lane, crowds of people stepped out of their offices and shops to watch this “students’ rag”. Most witnesses to the “ragging” cheered the high-spirits of Birkbeck’s students; a few “tutted” disapprovingly about “childish” antics. Once at the theatre, Birkbeck students sang silly songs, beat drums, released balloons or streamers, and mocked the authorities. They refused to let speakers start their lecture until they had loudly sung the “Birkbeck Anthem”.

College song

College song pt 1

College song pt 2

College song pt 2

In 1934, it was the turn of Walter Elliott (the Minister of Agriculture) to be “ragged”. The students forced him out of his taxi and made him ride up Fetter Lane on pantomime-cow. He was photographed “clinging with one hand” to the “cow” and waving his hat with the other hand “in the manner of a Wild West rider (but looking less sure of his seat)”. The Minister was then led up the steps to the platform of the lecture theatre by two young men: one dressed as a yokel and the other as a fairy. Once on the platform, the “fairy” curtsied before presenting the Minister of Agriculture with “a basket containing a pig’s head and some kippers”. The Minister was then required to sign this declaration:

“I, Walter Elliott, alias Bo-Bo the Gadarene, whose father was Hi-To, begat of Circe, do hereby present all my estate in piggery to the students of Birkbeck College.”

Under Elliott’s signature were the words “Chief of the Pig Board, Chief of the Milk Board, Chief of the Hops Board, Chief of the Herring Board”. The fairy then reappeared, giving everyone on the platform a bottle of milk, each with a straw stuck through the tab, to suck. Only then was the Minister of Agriculture allowed to give his lecture.

Ridiculous? Well, yes, but that was the point. Foundation ceremonies could be very dreary occasions: “ragging” certainly livened things up. They were also an effective way for graduating students to “let off steam”. More importantly, they were a negotiated inversion of staff-student relations in an institution that was markedly hierarchical. “Ragging” was a classic example of “authorised transgression”. They were carnivalesque, temporarily inverting the rules and power structures while simultaneously blunting social criticism.

From 1939, however, a more serious mood crept over university culture as well as British life more generally. Austerity was not conducive to the wild pelting of eggs and flour, let alone men wearing lipstick in lecture theatres. Birkbeck students were also increasingly part-time and older: they had less time for the “high jinxs” of their predecessors. Alas, the carnivalesque misconduct of the “Joy Night” faded away.

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Working remotely: top tips on how to work or study from home productively

The last few months has forced many of us to change the way we work. To help with this transition, Jessica Brooke, Birkbeck’s Social Media Officer, shares her tips for staying motivated and healthy while working or studying from home.

Get dressed

First thing’s first, get dressed. Chilling in your PJ’s may seem appealing to begin with, but getting into normal work gear can get you in the right mindset and help to feel like the day has really started. Freelancer and working-from-home veteran Annie Ridout has commented on the benefits of getting dressed for the day:

“Psychologically, what you see when you look in the mirror matters. If you see someone dressed for success, in a considered outfit, this will inspire productivity. Conversely, if you see pyjamas or sweatpants, this might instil the notion that you aren’t ready to start work.”

Set up your workspace

Once you’re dressed and ready for the working day, make sure your workspace is up to scratch too! In Buffer’s 2019 ‘State of Remote Working’ study, they found that the biggest obstacle participants working from home struggled with was ‘unplugging after work’. Having a regular workspace can help to create boundaries between your home life and your work life.

Think about somewhere in your house where you are least likely to be distracted or interrupted, as well as somewhere you can move away from when you’re finished working for the day. Keep it green with flowers and plants. A study by Dr Craig Knight found that productivity was boosted across the board when mother nature was introduced to the workspace, so get those leafy greens involved! Check out our #Deskies awards over on Twitter for some workspace inspiration.

Recreate your usual schedule

Keeping your workday habits similar is another way to successfully adjust to working remotely. If you’re used to grabbing a coffee first thing, make your own from home at around the same time. This can help to maintain some sense of normalcy, as well as installing some structure in your day. Write to-do lists in the morning to make sure you stay focussed and cross them off when they’re done.

Of course, your overall schedule will be slightly different at home and you might find yourself working harder for longer without the distraction of other people, so it’s important to take regular breaks. The Pomodoro Technique is a method of time management that involves breaking up your day into 25-minute working slots, followed by five-minute breaks. This can help you stay productive and alert to your task, as well as making sure you get those all-important breaks in. Use this fun Tomato Timer to stick to the schedule!

Ask for support when you need it

This can mean from your supervisor, colleagues or classmates. Reaching out to others for support with your work or your studies is important and will help you to stay on task. This could even just mean scheduling in catchups or working on tasks together. Maintaining these relationships and seeing how others are doing will also help you to boost your mood and avoid feelings of isolation. Articulate Marketing have put together this great web page linking to a huge list of resources that can help you work effectively and collaborate with others from home.

Be grateful for the flexibility

Buffer’s 2019 survey also found that participants believed the biggest benefit to working from home was the flexible schedule. Embrace the time you’ve gained from the usual commute by taking walks, cooking wholesome lunches and keeping in touch with friends and family.

 

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Professor Anthony Bale shares his passion for Chaucer & Medieval English

Professor Bale recently elected President of New Chaucer Society and discusses a career-long interest in Chaucer and his intentions to broaden the appeal of the subject.

Professor Anthony Bale, Executive Dean, School of Arts

Professor Anthony Bale, Executive Dean, School of Arts

Some of us read Chaucer in school. What’s your earliest memory of the author’s work and what’s the relevance for our current times?

I didn’t actually read Chaucer at school – at my state school, the earliest literature I’d encountered before university was Shakespeare. However, I had long been interested in the Middle Ages and I immediately fell in love with medieval literature at university, whilst studying for my degree in English Language & Literature. I had some inspiring teachers at university and did special options on Chaucer and on Medieval & Renaissance Romance. Medieval literature remains relevant for our times – it helps us understand the language we speak, the changing idea of the nation we live in, and many of the institutions that continue to exist in contemporary Britain (for example, in the royal family, the legal system, universities, and local government). And London was Chaucer’s city – he lived for a time at Aldgate – and we can see traces of him and his era all across the city, from a bridge he had built at Eltham to his grave at Westminster.  Chaucer’s poetry is incredibly rich, and even after studying Chaucer for more than 25 years, every time I go back to his writing I find something new and exciting.

Tell us a bit more about the New Chaucer Society?

The New Chaucer Society was founded in 1979 and is the leading, global learned society for the teaching and study of the age of Chaucer – basically, the later Middle Ages, broadly from the thirteenth to the early sixteenth centuries. The ‘New’ reflects the connection to the original Chaucer Society, founded in 1868. But I’d like to think that the ‘New’ in the Society’s name shows how each generation keeps Chaucer and his era new and fresh, bringing new critical perspectives to bear on his life, work, and historical era. The Society is based at the University of Miami in Florida, and has a biennial Congress – which I co-organised in London in 2016. We’ll be meeting in Durham later this year. The Society also publishes a leading journal, Studies in the Age of Chaucer, and has members all over the world working on medieval studies in different languages, national traditions and critical perspectives.

In your new position as President of the Society, what will you be focusing on and hoping to achieve?

The New Chaucer Society is flourishing but there are many challenges to be faced. I anticipate that priorities for the Society over the next few years include rethinking our biennial Congress and its purposes. The Congress has to be more ethical, sustainable, and inclusive, and we must protect and extend funding to ensure that those who wish to participate are able to do so. I also plan to advocate for the teaching of late medieval literature on school curricula and internationally, particularly in non-elite schools, and help to develop the Society’s profile as a resource for teachers of medieval literature at all levels. Without medieval literature on syllabi, we will not foster the next generation of medievalists.

How do those priorities fit into the general landscape for late Medieval English literature and culture?

Fewer and fewer schools and universities teach medieval literature, and it’s imperative that we don’t let this field of study dwindle away and become a ‘specialist’, niche field. Medieval studies has often had the reputation, as a field, of being conservative and exclusive. This cannot be the case, and I want to ensure that the Society remains an inclusive place for fresh critical debates in medieval studies.

It’s a great achievement to be elected President. Can you share what the process was; who was part of the nomination and election process?

The Society’s Trustees developed a slate of three names and an election took place across the Society’s entire membership, based on candidates’ statements.

What is the tenure and how large is your team at the Society?

The position commences in July 2020 and will run for two years. I’ll be working closely with the Society’s brilliant Executive Director, Tom Goodmann, at the University of Miami, and the Society’s Trustees. Four new Trustees were elected at the same time, and they are from Iceland and from across the USA.

How will this align with the role you hold at Birkbeck?

As Dean of Arts much of my energy has been focused on protecting the arts, addressing educational inequality, and leading change. This has included developing funding for diversity scholarships and co-founding the Out@Birkbeck LGBT+ staff network. My own research has been at the forefront of challenging understandings of the cultural history of medieval antisemitism and global encounters through travel in the Middle Ages. I have published on Chaucer throughout my career, and continue to do so.

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Lillian Penson: the first PhD in the University of London

Lillian Margery Penson was the first person in the University of London to be awarded a PhD. In this blog, Joanna Bourke discusses the life and achievements of Penson. This blog is part of a series that celebrate 200 years since Birkbeck was established and International Women’s Day on Sunday 8 March.

Lillian Margery Penson

Lillian Margery Penson_© Royal Holloway College, RHC-BC.PH, 1.1, Archives-Royal Holloway University of London

Lillian Margery Penson (1896-1963) was an outstanding scholar and university administrator. She was the first person (of any sex) in the University of London to be awarded a PhD; she was the first woman to become a Professor of History at any British university; and she was the first woman in the UK and Commonwealth to become a vice-chancellor of a university, at the age of only 52. She owed her undergraduate and doctoral education to the History Department at Birkbeck.

Opinions about her were divided. Was she the “foremost woman in the academic life of our day” (The Scotsman), a “remarkable woman” (The Times), and someone who exuded “charm, tolerance, and a sense of humour”? Or was she an “imperious grande dame”, “très autoritaire”, and “too trenchant”? The answer is probably “a mixture”. Although Penson “could on occasion be brusque and even intimidating”, she “had a happy knack of getting to know people quickly”, was “an excellent judge of wine and loved good company”, and projected “a wealth of genuine kindness”. In other words, Penson was probably trapped in that familiar double-bind experienced by powerful women in male-dominated fields: she was admired for her intellect and determination, yet disparaged as a woman for possessing those same traits. One newspaper report on the achievements of “the professor” even referred to Penson using the masculine pronoun: “he”.

Who was Penson? She was born in Islington on 18 July 1896. Her father worked as a wholesale dairy manager and her family were of the Plymouth Brethren persuasion. Indeed, one colleague observed that the “marks of a puritanical upbringing were never effaced” and her “belief in work and duty” meant that she was always made uncomfortable by “flippant talk”. She never married.

From her youth, Penson was intrigued by diplomatic history, colonial policy, and foreign affairs. Her intellectual talents were obvious. In 1917, at the age of 21 years, she graduated from Birkbeck with a BA in History (first class). The war was at its height, so she joined the Ministry of National Service as a junior administrative officer (1917-18) before moving to the war trade intelligence department (1918-19). At the end of the war, Penson returned to her studies of history at Birkbeck and became, in 1921, the first person in the University of London to be awarded a PhD.

Penson’s achievement was even more remarkable because of her gender. After all, throughout the period from 1921 to 1990, only one-fifth of PhD students in history were female. Penson was also young. The average age for history students to complete their doctorates was their mid-30s; Penson was only 25 years old. Birkbeck immediately offered her a job as a part-time lecturer, during which time she also taught part-time at the East London Technical College, now Queen Mary University of London. In 1925, she was given a full-time lecturing post at Birkbeck.

More notably, she was the first female Vice-Chancellor of a university in the UK and the Commonwealth. Indeed, the second female vice-chancellor would not be appointed for another 27 years (this was Dr Alice Rosemary Murray who was appointed Vice-Chancellor of Cambridge in 1975). Then, in 1948, the University of Cambridge agreed to award degrees to women. The last time they had tried this (in 1897), there had been a riot. In 1948, however, the Queen, Myra Hess, and Penson became the first women to be awarded honorary Cambridge degrees (in Penson’s case, a LL.D or Doctor of Laws). The Scotsman decreed Penson’s academic and administrative talents to be “unsurpassed even in the annals of that great institution”.

Many of the values that Penson promoted were those at the heart of the Birkbeck mission. She spoke eloquently on the need to offer university education for “virtually all comers”, with no restriction based on religion, race, or sex. She was keen to insist that the job of the university teacher was to “do something more than impose upon the memories of our students masses of detailed information”.

As with many powerful women, she has largely been forgot. After her death, a University of London Dame Lillian Penson fund was established to provide travel money between scholars engaged in research in one of the universities of the Commonwealth, especially Khartoum, Malta, the West Indies, and new universities in African countries. This seems to have disappeared. All that remains is a bricks-and-mortar legacy in the shape of the Lillian Penson Hall, which still exists next to Paddington Station in Talbot Square, providing accommodation for over 300 students.

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Summer School in Uganda!

Sapphire Metcalf, BA Politics student, shares her experience at the Natural Resources and Development Summer School of Kyambogo University, Uganda, after successfully being awarded an Association of Commonwealth Universities (ACU) Summer School grant through Birkbeck. Birkbeck undergraduate students are encouraged to apply for the 2020 ACU Summer School Grants by Friday 28 February 2020, please see the full details below.

July 1st, 2019, I landed in Kampala, the capital city of Uganda, to begin the summer of a lifetime studying in Africa.

I remember applying for the scholarship in early 2019 through Birkbeck and envisioning how incredible it would be to study for one month in another continent with students who may have completely different perspectives to me on common issues, due to cultural differences, life experience, and access to resources. A few months later I was informed that I had been put forward by Birkbeck to the final stages of the selection process and subsequently in early April the Association of Commonwealth Universities (ACU) congratulated me on the success of my application and to begin preparing for the incredible journey I was about to embark upon in Uganda!

When you are awarded the grant by the ACU you are then free to apply for one of the host universities available in that year. There were summer schools being held in stunning places such as Canada, India, Australia, and China however, I was instantly drawn to Kyambogo university in Uganda due to its focus on natural resources and development. My area of interest is centred in international development, climate change and environmental policy and the course Kyambogo offered boasted many insightful topics including; conservation planning and practice, climate change effects, gender and resource management, oil and gas, parks and wildlife and environmental development; which furthered my excitement for this unique experience.

From start to finish the summer school and all its staff and organisation managed to exceed my expectations, as I felt so welcome and at home, I almost forgot I was in Africa. The classes were thoroughly engaging from the academics at Kyambogo and I learned a lot, it was also incredibly interesting to engage in cultural aspects of learning as well, such as entering classes without shoes and saying a prayer before commencing. As well teaching from academics we often met with industry professionals such as the National Environment Management Authority, National Water and Sewage Corporation, and Bold Energy, a social enterprise. Lessons ran from Monday to Thursday, with Fridays reserved for day trips out of the university campus.

In preparation for our first outing we were given some local language to use and a local Buganda name, which all have a meaning; mine was Apalat which means laughter. We were then taken on a tour around Kampala and visited the famously hectic street markets, the largest mosque in the country, the King’s Palace and my fellow Ugandan classmates led us to try to local brew, which is a socialising activity for men and women within communities and is consumed through long bamboo straws. Other Fridays we ventured to the Ndere cultural centre to watch performances capturing the lives of a wide variety of African tribes, as well as the town Jinja, where we took a boat ride to witness the source of the River Nile and enjoy a delightful Ugandan delicacy; Tilapia. Some of us later returned to the River Nile to take part in some white-water rafting activities which was an altogether exhilarating experience especially on one of the most famous rivers in the world.

The summer school included a week long field trip to Murchison Falls National Park, which will always remain one of my most cherished memories. Our first day in the park began at sunrise, which was already beautiful enough, then we embarked on a jeep safari with a very knowledgeable and passionate tour guide. Along the way we saw giraffes, herds of elephants, buffalo, antelope including the Ugandan cob, warthogs, baboons, blue tailed monkeys, and many types of bird in their stunning natural habitats. Following the land safari, we travelled by boat where we spotted spectacular views of kingfishers hunting, hippos, and crocodiles and of course the magnificent Murchison Falls. Just when we thought it had all come to an end, we disembarked the boat by the Falls and hiked by foot to catch a close up of the waterfall, in fact we ended up so close that we were splashed by the force of the water. It truly was the most spectacular day of my life.

During the rest of the field trip we met with Ugandan Wildlife Authority where we discussed human and wildlife integration and interacted with local communities within the park. We also stopped at Total, the Oil and Gas company, to witness the effects their oil rigs are having on the park.

I would once again like to thank Birkbeck and the ACU for this opportunity, it has been such a unique and inspiring experience that will hugely enhance my career prospects and motivation to return to Africa. If you wish to spend your summer at university meeting wonderful people and making great contacts and visiting another remarkable part of the world and immersing yourself into the culture all whilst enriching your knowledge, then I could not recommend applying for summer school enough!

Birkbeck undergraduate students are encouraged to apply for the 2020 ACU Summer School Grants by 28th February – see full details and criteria. Complete the application form and return it to student-communications@bbk.ac.uk by Friday 28 February.

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Birkbeck, an energy you carry with you through your lifetime

Birkbeck alumna, Helen Kofler, writes about her work experience with the Birkbeck Futures team, after deciding she wanted to follow her passions and explore a career change.

As a Birkbeck masters graduate my most profound memory is of my graduation in 2015. I was sitting in the crowded auditorium and the familiar rumble of family members and friends cheering proudly for their loved ones, as they walked on stage to collect their hard-earned certificates, filled me with excitement and anticipation. I was sitting facing the stage on the right-hand side, so I saw the backs of students climbing the stage and only got to see their faces when they turned to face the audience.

One female student walked onto the stage and loud whistles and hands clapping in the sky charged throughout the audience. As I saw her turn to face me, her black gown was neatly folded around a baby carrier which she had strapped to her chest with her young toddler grinning out at the audience. For me this was everything Birkbeck stood for. The evening university which gives people the flexibility to study, whilst juggling the responsibilities of work, life and family.

So many of my contemporaries who have had children have had to turn to organisations such as ‘Pregnant, then Screwed’ when employers have discriminated against them for starting families, condemning their working lives. This woman on stage was looking that stereotype in the face and saying I am strong, I am powerful, I am intelligent and I am a mother. I was so proud to be a part of Birkbeck.

Having worked in retail in Marketing then as an Area Manager across London and the UK since 2010, I was exposed to the increasing pressure that has fallen on the UK retail market and decided it was time for me to leave the industry in search of new cheese. The only aspect of the job that I was sure I was committed to was working with, and developing, people. Through much soul searching and self-reflection I began to think about areas of my life which I enjoyed and where people were naturally drawn to me.

In the midst of this work on myself, my phone rang, “Helen, can I meet with you to help me prepare for a job interview?” “Yes!” I exclaimed. I hurriedly pored over the job spec and made a note of potential questions that could be asked. The next week, someone else called, “Helen, can we have a catch up, I am struggling at work and don’t know what my next move should be?” “Of course! Let’s go for a coffee.” This became a theme. I enjoyed so much meeting up with friends and colleagues and talking to them about career journeys but never considered it could be a full-time career itself.

Remembering my time at Birkbeck, I decided to contact the Birkbeck Futures team and ask for their advice. Even though I had graduated five years earlier, the door was flung open for me to discuss my situation with Lucy Crittenden, a Careers Consultant in the Futures team, where I was given bespoke advice and offered insight into creating a job out of my passion. An opportunity then arose for me to spend a week working alongside the team and seeing what they did on a day to day basis.

Excited and nervous, I made my way back to my old stomping ground ready for a week of learning. As I started the week, I have never come across such a generous and forward-thinking team. Spending a lot of my time with Jenna Davies, the Head of Careers, she took time out of her day to coach and mentor me. Jenna also shared her passion for entrepreneurship which I found truly inspiring and rubbed off on me giving me motivation to take side projects forward. Jenna organised a week full of interesting and fulfilling duties. These activities included research projects for Birkbeck’s inspiring Ability Programme, which is a series of lectures, workshops and networking opportunities dedicated to students and graduates with a disability, neurodivergence or long-term health conditions. I also attended training sessions and one to ones. Anna Gordon, Birkbeck Futures Career Coach helped me to reflect on my strengths and has given me a sense of purpose. Lucy Robinson, who is a Careers Consultant, gave me an insight into the Pioneer Programme, an initiative dedicated to encouraging students on their start up ideas. A week full of inspiration.

I have come away from my week at Birkbeck with that familiar sense of excitement and possibility that I was often filled with after having been to lectures and seminars as a student. Anna Gordon said that as a career changer it is important to have ‘resilience’ and I will carry this comment with me on my journey through career change. I am excited about the future and the opportunities ahead of me. I got the sense that there was a shared sense of community and purpose for each staff member that I came across. It was amazing to see as a spectator but also really infectious when surrounded by such energy.

At a lecture I attended towards the end of the week, Dr Rebecca Gumbrell-McCormick, Senior Lecturer in Management, said that Birkbeck is dedicated to inclusion and dedicated to giving people a second chance in life. The people I worked with during this week were testament to this and I am grateful to such an institution and these intrinsic values so imperative to our society today.

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Birkbeck’s London Landscapes

Richard Clark, Honorary Research Fellow in the Department of Politics, writes about how Birkbeck is woven into the very framework of the capital city. This blog is a part of a series that celebrates Birkbeck’s 200th anniversary in 2023. 

Unlike paper maps, smartphone navigation will tell you how to get there but not what’s around you. But search through the index of an old ‘A to Z’ map of London and if your destination starts with ‘B’, you’ll probably be surprised to notice quite a few ‘Birkbeck’ place-names.

Birkbeck roads survive today in Hornsey N8, in Finchley N12, in Tottenham N17 and in Mill Hill NW7.  There are more in Ealing W5, and in Wimbledon SW7and Acton W3.  Acton also has a Birkbeck Mews, and there is a Birkbeck Grove in leafy Acton Park.  Dulwich SE21 has a Birkbeck Hill and a Birkbeck Place and the pub-like building where they join was once precisely that – the Birkbeck Tavern.  In east London, Bethnal Green E2 has a Birkbeck Street, Dalston E8 has a Birkbeck Road (as well as another Birkbeck Mews) and Leyton E11 has two Birkbeck Roads, North and South, as well as another Birkbeck Tavern – still a lively pub protected by its patrons who saved it from redevelopment by a campaigning ‘Birkfest’.

Outside the London postcode area, there are yet more Birkbeck roads — in Beckenham, in Brentwood, in Enfield, in Ilford, in Romford and in Sidcup.  There’s a Birkbeck Gardens in Woodford and a Birkbeck Avenue and a Birkbeck Way in Greenford.  Beckenham has its Birkbeck Station (established as Birkbeck Halt in 1858).

More Birkbeck place names can be found on old maps and census records of the London area.  For example Birkbeck Road, Birkbeck Place and Birkbeck Terrace in Streatham, Wandsworth, are recorded in the 1881 and 1891 census but have subsequently been lost as have Birkbeck Road and Birkbeck Place, Camberwell which appear also in the censuses of 1871.  Elthorne Road in Archway N19 started life as Birkbeck Road as did Holmesdale Road in Highgate N6.  Both had Birkbeck Taverns – the former is now converted into ‘Birkbeck Flats’ (but still, like the Dulwich Tavern, recognisably an old pub).  The Boogaloo at the top of Holmesdale Road is still a pub — a lively music and comedy venue, well worth a visit, with a ‘Birkbeck’ mosaic (desperately in need of protection) testifying to its past still on the threshold as you enter.

All the above have a close connection with Birkbeck, University of London, and reveal something of the College’s past.  Greenford’s Birkbeck Avenue and Way are the most recent.  Both are named after what used to be the Birkbeck College Sports Ground, leased to the College by the City Parochial Foundation from the 1920s until 1998 when governors felt they could no longer justify the rent.  Today’s lessee is the London Marathon Charitable Trust and the ground’s football, rugby and cricket pitches serve clubs across West London.

Several of the Birkbeck toponyms – for example those in Bethnal Green, in Dalston and in Camberwell — are associated with the Birkbeck Schools, established by William Ellis between 1848 and the early 1860s.  Ellis was one of the founders and benefactors of Birkbeck College’s predecessor, the London Mechanic’s Institute —his name appears on a foundation stone in the lobby of the Malet Street entrance.  One Birkbeck School building — today Colvestone Primary School in Dalston — still stands, its structure (including well-lit classrooms in place of dull monitorial halls) reflecting what for the time were Ellis’s progressive educational theories.  The schools were set up to teach children ‘social economy’ as an antidote to the radical socialist ‘political economy’ then gaining ground in Europe and they prefigured the civics curricula taught in English schools today.

Most of the other toponyms mark the locations of ‘Birkbeck Estates’ – land purchased and developed by the Birkbeck Land and Building Societies established in the premises of the London Mechanics Institute by Francis Ravenscroft in 1851.  Ravenscroft had joined the LMI as a student a couple of years previously, became a Governor, and set up the Building Society as a ‘penny savings bank’ to encourage thrift and diligence amongst its students, offering them the prospect of a house – and (for the men) a vote.  Initially based in a cupboard in the LMI’s office, the Societies grew to become a major bank, taking over the LMI’s premises and financing its move —as the Birkbeck Literary and Scientific Institution — to new premises nearby.  Without Ravenscroft (his bust sits on a windowsill in the Council Room) Birkbeck College would probably not exist today.  The estates played a significant role in the suburbanisation of London and are interesting for many reasons – not least because, unlike the temperance building societies of the period, they featured pubs.

For more on the story of the Birkbeck Bank and Building Society, watch out for a subsequent blog or have a look here. And there’s some information on the Birkbeck Boozers here.  I’m about to submit a paper on the Birkbeck Schools, and perhaps I’ll blog a little later about these too.

Further information: 

 

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Dr George Birkbeck’s descendant visits the College

One of Dr George Birkbeck’s descendants dropped into Birkbeck prior to Christmas 2019 to put a name to a place!

Lyndsee Baumann-Birkbeck is an academic and school teacher from Queensland, Australia and had long wanted to see the institution that bore her descendant’s name. Lyndsee was undertaking the visit, as part of a wider trip to Europe in honour of her late father who died suddenly in 2015. He never made it to visit Birkbeck and as the Birkbeck family line was through the paternal side Lyndsee felt it was the right time to visit.

Lyndsee visited Birkbeck with her husband and was greeted by Jessica Jeske, Events Manager who gave the pair a tour of Birkbeck’s Malet St building. Later on, they were greeted by Jonathan Woodhead, Birkbeck’s Policy Adviser and Jessica Goulson from the Development and Alumni team who talked through the background to the Mechanics’ Institutes which our founder was instrumental in developing. Birkbeck’s more recent history and planning of the upcoming 200th Anniversary of the founding of Birkbeck was also discussed with the pair. It is hoped that Birkbeck will be able to involve Lyndsee in any future events connected with the 200th anniversary.

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The London Mechanics’ Institute: Its Foundation

Helen Hudson Flexner discusses the inception and impetus behind the creation of The London Mechanics’ Institute in 1823.      

London Mechanics’ Institute, Southampton Buildings, Holborn: the interior of the laboratory, in a cellar. Wood engraving by W. C. Walker after Mr. Davy [1828].
1828 By: Davyafter: William Chester Walker
Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images

‘Knowledge is Power’ was the rallying cry that launched Birkbeck College in 1823, in its first manifestation as the London Mechanics’ Institute (LMI). These words, designed to appeal to uneducated men, headed the Mechanics’ Magazine proposal for a new technical institution and it couldn’t be missed, as the huge-selling magazine was a favourite among artisans interested in the latest inventions. Today large companies control major manufacturing sectors. Back then, a man could make his fortune with a new process or speedier production. So the LMI was set up to empower men with the latest science in this ‘steam intellect’ society.

George Birkbeck, radical teacher and London physician, was immediately on board.      Such was his standing that he chaired the inaugural meeting at the Crown and Anchor on 11 November 1823.  Many who flooded into the tavern were proudly working class: carpenters, jewellers, iron mongers, weavers, precision instrument makers, engineers, and printers. They were necessarily autodidacts, simply because there was no state funded education at the time. The metropolis, with its well-paid artisanal base, provided a ready audience for the new institute.

Although others who came to the launch and joined the LMI were not working class, the Institute was designed for the ‘lower orders’. Indeed, Birkbeck, president of the Institute from 1823-1842, reported in 1837 that two thirds of the membership had always been working class. The Institute even legislated to ensure that two thirds of the management committee was working class, and on nomination a man’s class had to be identified. Thus, the workers’ interests were always represented. Soon, some of the working-class members were running classes themselves, while their inventions were showcased in lectures. The Institute’s egalitarian ethos even extended to women who could attend lectures from 1825 and were able to become members in 1830.

Fees weren’t extravagant: five shillings a quarter, probably a day’s wage for an artisan, or £17 in today’s money. For this, the men gained access to workshops, a chemistry lab, an apparatus room containing geological specimens, drawing equipment and mechanical instruments, a good library, classes and lectures. In these decades before professionalisation, the lecturers encouraged their audiences to challenge what they heard. William Frend, a unitarian radical who had been expelled from Cambridge University for campaigning against the Thirty Nine Articles of the Anglian faith, told the LMI audience to ignore any ‘appeal to the wisdom of our ancestors’. Their new world was in the making.

Working Londoners made the most of this liberating environment. Some used it to change their vocation, which itself could bring higher status.  George Francis was a shoe-maker, but made his name in optics at the LMI. Called to the LMI stage to explain his improved eye glasses, he was described as ‘a plain and unassuming workman’ who ‘addressed the assembly … in very clear and intelligible language, though evidently unpolished by the refinements of education.’ By 1828 Francis had become ‘an optician of some celebrity’. The early history is replete with such examples.

So in its founding incarnation, Birkbeck College was a revolutionary educational institution encouraging and enabling social mobility. Within a year mechanics’ institutes sprouted up across England and Scotland. But none of them was so progressive. None had the two thirds rule. None appealed so consistently to working men. Our London institution remained the radical leader.

Helen Hudson Flexner is the author of The London Mechanics Institution: Social and Cultural Foundations 1823-1830‘, PhD thesis, UCL 2014. 

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Black History Month 2019: Marcus Garvey at Birkbeck

Ahead of Birkbeck’s 200th anniversary, Professor Joanna Bourke explores the history of the College in this blog series, starting with a look at Jamaican political activist, Black Nationalist and Pan-Africanist Marcus Garvey’s time at Birkbeck. 

Birkbeck has always been a diverse community. In the 1910s, one of our students was the Jamaican revolutionary Marcus Garvey, who later co-founded (with Pan-Africanist Amy Ashwood) the Universal Negro Improvement and Conservation Association and African Communities League.

In 1912, 25-year-old Garvey stepped off the boat at Southampton docks. He had just arrived from Jamaica. According to the census of 1911, there were only 4,540 “Africans” (which included West Indians) living in the United Kingdom at the time. Garvey, who had just begun thinking seriously about issues of identity and race, spent the next two years travelling about the UK. His base, however, was London where, between 1912 and 1914, he attended classes in law and philosophy at Birkbeck.

He always looked back at his time in the College with fondness. His time in London had been enriched by meeting Dusé Mohammed Ali, a Sudanese-Egyptian, who worked as a journalist and stage actor but also wrote In the Land of the Pharaohs. It was Ali who vouched for Garvey’s honesty when he applied for a readers’ ticket admitting him into the rotunda of the British Library. This was where Garvey first read Booker T. Washington’s Up From Slavery. As he later recalled, this book made him realise his “doom – if I may so call it”: the possibility “of being a race leader dawned on me”.

Garvey was a keen and vocal Birkbeck student; he could occasionally also be heard haranguing crowds at Hyde Park’s “Speakers’ Corner” and supporters could read his articles in the African Times and Orient Review. In the Review’s October 1913 edition, Garvey contended that the British West Indies was “the Mirror of Civilization” and he saluted “History Making by Colonial Negroes” as an achievement that should be celebrated. His time at Birkbeck was revelatory. He asked himself:

“where is the black man’s Government? Where is his King and his kingdom? where is his President, his country, and his ambassador, his army, his navy, his men of big affairs?”

When he realised that he “could not find them”, he contended that he had a duty to “help to make them”. On 17 June 1914, he boarded the SS Trent as one of only three third-class passengers and made his way back to Jamaica. During the month-long voyage, he had time to reflect on what he had learnt at Birkbeck and in the UK. Five days after arriving back in Jamaica, the Universal Negro Improvement and Conservation Association and African Communities League was born.

Throughout his life, Garvey spoke warmly about his time at Birkbeck. His affection was not dented even after he discovered that, in the early 1930s, the College had (briefly) employed Sir Fiennes Barrett-Lennard as a lecturer. In 1929, when Sir Fiennes had been Chief Justice of Jamaica, he had not only imprisoned Garvey for contempt of court but had also confiscated the property of the Universal Negro Improvement Association. Garvey was later to sardonically observe that there seemed to be:

“a kind of inseparable relationship between us and the ex-Chief [that is, Sir Fiennes as Chief Justice of Jamaica]. By goodness, he is to be connected to our Alma Mater. Little did we believe twenty years ago that Sir Fiennes would have become a member of the faculty of the College where we spent a little time.”

Garvey admitted that he would “feel very much embarrassed on a visit to England” if, while attending a graduation at Birkbeck, he discovered that the former Chief Justice was “the guest of the evening”. Garvey need not have worried: Sir Fiennes was marginal in the College and was certainly never invited to speak at any official ceremony.  Despite his disappointment in Birkbeck’s choice of lecturer, Garvey insisted that the “tradition of Birkbeck College is one that every student can be proud of”.

Joanna Bourke, Professor of History, is writing a history of Birkbeck for publication during the College’s 200th anniversary in 2023. Joanna is also the Gresham Professor of Rhetoric (London) and you can find out more about her Gresham College public lecture series at https://www.gresham.ac.uk/series/exploring-the-body/

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