A short history of Computer Science at Birkbeck

The story of the contribution of one department to the life of the College, the development of computing technology and to the computer industry.

The first official reference to computing at Birkbeck can be found in the 1947-8 College Annual Report, which says: “An ambitious scheme is in progress for the construction of an Electronic Computer, which will serve the needs of crystallographic research at 21-22 Torrington Square; it will also provide a means of relieving many other fields of research in Chemistry and Physics of the almost crushing weight of arithmetic work, which they involve.”

The origins of these computing efforts at Birkbeck are inextricably linked with the names of J D Bernal, the great crystallographer, and his new assistant, Andrew Booth. Returning to Birkbeck at the end of the Second World War, Bernal started building a new research group to study crystallography. He appointed four assistants, one of whom was Booth, who was to lead on mathematical methods. Booth began by building his first electromechanical calculator, the Automatic Relay Calculator (ARC).

Kathleen Britten Xenia Sweeting and Andrew Booth working on ARC in December 1946

Kathleen Britten Xenia Sweeting and Andrew Booth working on ARC in December 1946

A highlight of Booth’s early career at Birkbeck was an extended visit to the Institute of Advanced Studies at Princeton, where he was accompanied by Kathleen Britten, who would soon become his wife. The trip allowed the pair to work with John Von Neumann, one of the most influential early computer pioneers, and convinced them that the ARC should be redesigned in accordance with what is now commonly known as a “von Neumann” architecture. Together, Andrew and Kathleen wrote a widely-circulated paper entitled “General Considerations in the Design of an All-purpose Electronic Digital Computer” which examined the options then available for building each component. The construction of their first electronic computer, called SEC (Simple Electronic Computer), was completed around 1950. Andrew wrote up the project in his MSc dissertation, which appears to make him the first computing graduate at Birkbeck and hence the Department’s earliest alumnus.

The couple’s best-known machine, APEC (All-Purpose Electronic Computer), was designed in 1949. In 1951, BTM used its hardware circuits as the basis of the design of their HEC1 computer, which evolved directly by the end of the 1950s into the bestselling British computer, with a total of nearly 100 machines installed.

Even in the days of cumbersome early machines, Andrew wrote about making computers available as widely as possible, securing a grant for a programme ofresearch on “desk calculating machines” as early as 1949. A copy of his reportevaluates the technical options for putting computers on, if not the desktop, at least the laboratory bench.

From the start, Kathleen was closely involved in the building and testing of the computers that Andrew designed. Getting these early machines to work involved a

The BTM HEC1 Prototype in store at Birmingham Museum

The BTM HEC1 Prototype in store at Birmingham Museum

combination of testing the electronics and then checking that the programmes executed correctly. In 1953, they co-authored their best-known book, Automatic Digital Calculators, which ran to three editions. As part of her software development work, Kathleen developed a very early assembly language for their computers and in 1958 she published a book on software entitled Programming for an Automatic Digital Calculator.

The first of its kind

In 1957, a Governors’ Resolution stated that Birkbeck’s Computer Laboratory was to be constituted as a separate Department under the headship of Dr Andrew Booth. As far as can be made out, the Department of Numerical Automation was the first department established to teach computing in a UK university; elsewhere the courses were still taught in Computer Laboratories.

Andrew and Kathleen Booth stayed in the Department until the summer of 1962, when they moved to Canada. Andrew continued his career in computing initially at the University of Saskatchewan and subsequently as President of Lakehead University, Ontario.

Over subsequent years, the Department crossed many milestones: adopting the name Department of Computer Science in 1963; awarding MScs to 29 students in 1968; and appointing a chair in 1970. The College Calendar for 1970-71 is the first to acknowledge “Computer Staff” as a distinct group, comprising two programmers, two operators and four computer assistants who prepared paper tape and punched cards. At this time, the College’s IT support staff reported to the Head of the Computer Science Department. This arrangement continued for many years until a separate College Computer Service was created.

At the turn of the century, Birkbeck gave its highest accolade, a College Fellowship, to two members of its community who had made distinguished contributions to the advancement of computing. Firstly, in 2002, to Dame Stephanie Shirley, who created a major UK software house, whose workforce for many years was composed principally of women working from home and who has subsequently done much to promote the responsible application of IT and other charitable activities. Secondly, in 2003, it awarded a College Fellowship to Andrew Booth in recognition of his lifetime contribution to computing.

Left to right: Dame Stephanie Shirley and Dame Judith Mayhew

Dame Stephanie Shirley (left), on the occasion of her installation as a College Fellow in 2002 with Dame Judith Mayhew, Chairman of Governors.

The Department today

The Department of Computer Science and Information Systems’ research activities have continued to expand over the past twenty years, into advanced logics, computer vision, ontologies, personalisation, web technologies, and ubiquitous computing, with the appointment of several new members of academic staff.

In 2004, the Department set up the London Knowledge Lab in collaboration with the neighbouring Institute of Education. The Birkbeck Knowledge Lab established in 2016 extends this legacy, drawing on multi and interdisciplinary perspectives and methodologies to investigate how digital technologies and digital information are transforming our learning, working and cultural lives.

The Birkbeck Institute for Data Analytics was founded in 2016 to develop

Andrew and Kathleen Booth in 2008

Andrew and Kathleen Booth in 2008

interdisciplinary research in data analytics and data science between computer scientists at the Department and members of Birkbeck’s other departments, across the sciences, social sciences, economics, law and humanities.

The Department celebrated its 60th anniversary in 2017, and the legacy of Andrew and Kathleen Booth continues to inspire generations of computer scientists. Each year, distinguished scholars and practitioners of computer science are invited to the College to deliver the Andrew and Kathleen Booth Memorial Lecture, which commemorates their pioneering work.

In 2018, Birkbeck became a founding member of the Institute of Coding, a national initiative established to address digital skill needs in industry sectors in key areas including data science, cyber security, artificial intelligence, and coding. Through our part time evening face-to-face model of delivery, Birkbeck is well placed to support those already in employment and has developed new full and part time programmes in Data Science to address the digital skills gap in this area. The Department has also established a relationship with industry through our partnership with the British Library and National Archives, where we jointly develop a PGCert in Computing for Cultural Heritage to help upskill their respective workforce and address the need for digital skills, such as programming, to manage the large volumes of digitised documents being made available for research and to the public as part of our digital economy.

The discipline of Computer Science is never dull. Rapidly evolving technology is always opening up new application areas, while new challenges from the real world drive technology developers to continually push the frontiers forward. We look forward to what the next 60 years will bring.

This article was adapted from the School of Computer Science and Information Systems: A Short History by Dr Roger Johnson, which was originally produced for the Department’s 50th birthday celebrations.

Department of Computer Science and Information Systems Timeline

1947      Andrew Booth and Kathleen Britten undertake a six-month US tour based at Princeton, where they work with early computer pioneer John Von Neumann.

Andrew Booth secures funding from the Rockerfeller Foundation for a computer to carry out natural language translation.

1948      Andrew Booth designs the Simple Electronic Computer.

1951      Andrew Booth is Birkbeck’s first computing graduate.

BTM’s HEC1, based on Andrew Booth’s Circuitry, is built.

1955       The Birkbeck Computer Laboratory gives a public demonstration of machine translation.

1957       The Department of Numerical Automation is officially established.

Andrew Booth is elected to serve on the first Council of the British Computer Society.

1958       Kathleen Booth’s book Programming for an Automatic Digital Calculator is published.

1961       International Computers and Tabulators Ltd. provide the Department with an I.C.T. Type 1400 computer, worth just under a quarter of a million pounds.

1967       The Chair in Computer Science is established.

                George Loizou (now Emeritus Professor), joins the Department as a Lecturer.

1968       29 students are awarded MScs, seven with distinction.

1971       Betty Walters is appointed Department Secretary, where she will serve for over 36 years.

1973       The Department takes part in a College Open Day, offering specialist equipment demonstrations. The then Secretary of State for Education, Margaret Thatcher, is among the attendees.

1983       Dr Roger Johnson (now Fellow of the College) joins the Department.

1987       The Department plays a major role in organizing the Very Large Data Base Conference in Brighton, which will host 700 delegates from all over the world.

1992       Dr Roger Johnson serves as President of the British Computer Society.

2002       Dame Stephanie Shirley is made a Fellow of the College in recognition of her distinguished contributions to the advancement of computing.

2003       Andrew Booth is made a Fellow of the College in recognition of his lifetime contribution to computing.

2004       The London Knowledge Lab is established in partnership with the Institute of Education.

2008       The first degree programmes are offered on Birkbeck’s Stratford campus.

2009       The School of Business, Economics and Informatics is established. The Department of Computer Science and Information Systems becomes one of four in the School.

2016       Birkbeck Institute for Data Analytics is founded.

2017       The Department celebrates its 60th anniversary.

2018       Birkbeck is a founding member of the Institute of Coding.

2020       The Department of Computer Science and Information Systems offers twelve scholarships to the PG Cert Applied Data Science for black and female candidates in order to widen representation in computing.

Further Information

 

Share
. Reply . Category: Business Economics and Informatics . Tags: , , ,

The Use of the ‘Useless’: Exploring the Story of Classics at Birkbeck, 1963 – 2003

Jonny Matfin, a PhD candidate of Birkbeck Knowledge, discusses the contemporary development of Classics at Birkbeck. This blog is part of the 200th-anniversary series, marking the founding of the College which we will celebrate in 2023.

The outside of Birkbeck College

Birkbeck College, copyright Birkbeck History Collection.

In a series of compelling critiques of recent government policy on higher education in Britain, the academic Stefan Collini mounts a conceptual defence of the university; through exploring the question of what universities are for, Collini concludes that higher education institutions – that is, places like Birkbeck – ‘embody an alternative set of values’. Such values, it is argued, have been debased by decades of political drives towards managerialism and marketisation – they are not easily captured by audits and reports.

Within this context, the academic subject of classics is key. As Collini observes, Latin and Greek university studies have had a long journey, ‘from being a preparation for clerical or political office, through the centuries in which they served to hallmark a gentleman, and on to their current standing as favoured example of a “useless” subject.’ Ironically, it is this very – inaccurate – verdict that makes classics so vital to historical understanding of changes to British universities since the 1960s: if, as Collini suggests, our higher education system has been seen by others around the world as a canary in the mine, then classics has been – so to speak – the canary’s canary.

Margaret Thatcher at Birkbeck Open Day in 1973

Margaret Thatcher at Birkbeck’s 150th Anniversary Open Day in 1973. Image courtesy of the Birkbeck History Collection.

Birkbeck, like most universities and colleges across Britain, experienced two major periods of change from 1963-2003: the expansion – in response to a booming population – of the 1960s and 1970s, and the moves towards managerialism and marketisation – widely, but not solely, associated with the Conservative Thatcher Government – of the 1980s and 1990s. Classics was one of a number of ‘smaller’ subjects which came under increasing scrutiny within higher education institutions during policy pushes connected to the second of these significant shifts.

Crisis point was reached in 1985 when a government body, the University Grants Committee, launched an inquiry into Latin and Greek teaching and research in UK universities. A subsequent report by the UGC recommended the closure of a number of classics departments nationwide – including that of Birkbeck, forcing its merger with King’s College by 1989-90. Critically, the government audit failed to take account of the unique part-time tuition provided by Birkbeck’s Department of Classics – an academic lifeline for working students wanting to pursue the discipline.

This then, is the crux: if examining the recent history of academic classics in Britain can help us to explore the question of what universities are for, studying the development of the discipline at Birkbeck from 1963-2003 can help us to break new ground – to understand what an institution like this college, providing exceptional part-time tuition, is for. In short, this aspect of the story of the “useless” is extremely useful in a historical sense. Moreover, the revival of Latin and Greek at Birkbeck through a Department of History, Classics and Archaeology – and its continued evening tuition in both disciplines, is no small reason for institutional pride in the present.

Further reading:

Stefan Collini, What Are Universities For? (London; New York: Penguin, 2012).

Share
. Reply . Category: College . Tags: , , , , ,

Cancel the Window-Cleaning Contract!

Professor Jerry White, Professor of Modern London History at Birkbeck recounts how the College faired during the Second World War. This blog is part of the 200th-anniversary series, marking the founding of the College and the 75th anniversary of Victory in Europe Day.

Bomb damage to Birkbeck Library

Bomb damage to Birkbeck Library. The area around Birkbeck College was bombed during the air-raid of 10-11 May 1941. The resultant fire destroyed the Library. Image courtesy of Birkbeck History collection.

Most of London University shut down on the declaration of war in September 1939. The headquarters at Senate House was taken over by the Ministry of Information and most colleges were evacuated (like much of the BBC, many government departments and most of London’s hospitals) to areas thought to be less vulnerable to bombing. University College shifted to Aberystwyth and elsewhere in Wales, King’s to Bristol, LSE and Bedford to Cambridge, and so on. Birkbeck, its London roots deeper than any of its sister colleges and so unable to be useful to Londoners if sent to the country, resolved to close on the outbreak of war and for a time did so. But the war failed to open with a bang and in the absence of air attack, or apparently any likelihood of bombing for the immediate future, Birkbeck reopened at the end of October 1939. Indeed, it didn’t merely reopen but expanded its offer: for the first time, extensive daytime teaching was made available for those London students unable to follow their chosen university colleges out of the capital. And despite the blackout, a wide range of evening teaching also resumed.

Birkbeck was not yet at its present Bloomsbury site. That building contract had been let but work had to stop in July 1939 because of the uncertain international situation – contractors were given more pressing projects to work on, both civil defence and industrial – and in fact the new college would not be completed and occupied till 1951. So Birkbeck was still in its late-Victorian location in Breams and Rolls Buildings, straddling the City and Holborn boundary west of Fetter Lane, incidentally sharing a party wall with the Daily Mirror building. It had some near misses during the main blitz of 1940-41 and narrowly escaped total destruction in the great City fire raid of 29 December 1940, which opened a view – never before seen – of St Paul’s from the college windows. From that time on all places of work had to arrange a fireguard of staff to be in the building at night time to deal with incendiaries and raise the fire brigade if necessary. There followed nearly three-and-a-half years of relative quiet, with sporadic bombing of London and the Baby Blitz of early 1944 rarely troubling the college and its work. But Birkbeck would nearly meet its nemesis from a V1 flying bomb (or doodle-bug) at 3.07am on 19 July 1944.

Dr A. Graham was a member of the college fireguard that night, on the 1-3am watch.

I wakened Jackson [the College accountant] to do the 3-5am spell…. We were saying a few words to one another when we heard The Daily Mirror alarm go. Suddenly the bomb, which had merely been a near one until that second … dived without its engine stopping. Its noise increased enormously; Jackson and I looked at one another in silence; and I remember wondering what was going to happen next. What did happen was all over before we realised it had happened … a gigantic roar from the engine of the bomb, not the noise of an explosion, but a vast clattering of material falling and breaking, a great puff of blast and soot all over the room, and then utter quiet. Massey [another fire watcher] raised his head from the bed where he had been asleep and asked what all that was….

As the dust settled Graham climbed over the flattened metal doors of the College and went into the street. The first thing he heard was footsteps coming at a run up Breams Buildings. It was a Metropolitan police constable: ‘he called backwards into the darkness… “It’s all right, George, it’s in the City”’; satisfying himself there were no urgent casualties he promptly disappeared. Troup Horne, the College secretary from 1919-1952, was also one of the fireguard but, not wanted till 5am, was in a makeshift bed in his office: ‘At 3.06am I was awakened by a doodle overhead. Thinking we were for it, I pulled a sheet over my head to keep the plaster out of my remaining hairs; and five seconds later the damned thing went pop.’ Horne was found ‘covered from head to foot with soot, dust, and thousands of fragments of broken glass and other bits scattered from the partition which separated the general office from his room.’ His chief assistant, Phyllis Costello, was also sleeping in the College that night and was frequently part of the fireguard. She rushed to see if he was injured and was greeted by Horne instructing, ‘Cancel the window-cleaning contract’.

Indeed, there were no windows left anywhere in the College. For some time after, a witticism coined in Fleet Street during the main Blitz, was Birkbeck’s watchword: ‘We have no panes, dear mother, now.’*

*Edward Farmer (1809?-1876), ‘The Collier’s Dying Child’: ‘I have no pain, dear mother, now.’ All the information used here comes from E.H. Warmington, A History of Birkbeck College University of London During the Second World War 1939-1945, published by Birkbeck in 1954.

Share
. Reply . Category: College . Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

Maths for the Masses

In this blog, Ciarán O’Donohue a PhD student in the Department of History, Classics and Archaeology, discusses the decision to teach mathematics to the first students of the Mechanics Institute. This is part of the 200th anniversary blog series that celebrates the College’s bicentenary in 2023.   

The Massacre of Peterloo

The Massacre of Peterloo. The commander is saying “Down with ’em! Chop ’em down my brave boys; give them no quarter! They want to take our Beef & Pudding from us – & remember the more you kill the less poor rates you’ll have to pay so go on Lads show your courage & your Loyalty!”

Many of us will be familiar with the common questioning of why certain concepts are taught in our schools. Mathematics, and especially its most intricate systems, are often first to face the firing squad. It is not unusual to hear someone discussing education to ask: “Why are we not taught about credit, loans, and tax? I’m never going to use Pythagoras’s Theorem!” Certainly, when the subject of mathematics is brought up, the utility of algebra and theorems are often jovially dismissed as unimportant.

Two centuries ago, the picture was very different. The question of whether mathematics would be useful or dangerous knowledge to teach to the working class was one that was debated extremely seriously. In November 1823, the same month that the London Mechanics’ Institution was founded (which has now come to be named Birkbeck, University of London), Bell’s Weekly Messenger seized upon the propriety of teaching maths to London’s lower orders, lamenting that “the unhappy scepticism in France has been justly ascribed to this cause.” The implication was that teaching maths to the wider populace had caused them to question the order of society, and directly contributed to the French Revolution and its aftermath. Pertinently, this was an order which the British government had spent a fortune, not to mention the lives of hundreds of thousands of British subjects in the Napoleonic Wars to restore.

A revolution in Britain itself was still palpably feared in the 1820s, and its spectre was made more haunting by the Peterloo massacre just four years before this particular article was written, in August 1819. And so, surrounding the foundation of our College, and which subjects were appropriate, a war of words was waged.

The idea of teaching London’s working classes mathematics filled many with visceral dread. It was believed this would cause them to also become questioning like France’s peasants, eventually seeking proof for statements which they had hitherto blindly accepted.

The teaching of mathematics to mechanics, then, was considered by many to be socially, politically, and morally dangerous. Not only might it turn them into a questioning multitude, unwilling to simply accept what they’re told, it might also make them question the very structure of society and push for a semblance of equality. For critics, both outcomes could readily lead to revolution.

Henry Brougham, one of the founders of the College, believed that this catastrophe could be averted by teaching a reified body of knowledge, including a simplified version of mathematics. Writing of geometry, Brougham argued that, rather than “go through the whole steps of that beautiful system, by which the most general and remote truths are connected with the few simple definitions and axioms” it would be sufficient (and indeed safer) if the masses were to learn only the practical operations and general utility of geometry.

Similarly, many religious supporters of extending mathematical education to the mechanics believed that it would make people more religious, not less, if only it were taught in the right way. As God was believed to have created the world, the logic and order inherent in mathematic systems was held to show traces of his hand at work. An appreciation of mathematics and its traceable, systematic connections would thus create a renewed appreciation of God; not to mention for the order of the world as divinely ordained.

Likewise, moralists perceived more benefits in teaching the mechanics mathematics than drawbacks. The issue for them was not if the mechanics were to learn or read, but rather what. The key issue was that the mechanics were already largely literate. The rise of cheap literature, especially of the sentimental and pornographic varieties, preoccupied the minds of moralists and industrialists.

As the lower orders were believed to be motivated primarily by sensuality, learning mathematics was presented as a salve to degeneracy; a way to occupy their time with higher minded pursuits and strengthen their characters against wanton immorality.

Perhaps most worrying was the growing and uncontrollable availability of radical political writings. This more than anything was likely to upset the current order of society. The perceived and highly theoretical disadvantages of a mathematical education were thus infinitely preferable to such a realistic and allegedly growing threat. It was believed that the teaching of mathematics and science through a dedicated course of study, being undertaken as in the evenings, might reduce the time and energy the working man would have to devote to reading political tracts, let alone political activism.

It is, however, worth noting that, although many mechanics were literate, and most had rudimentary mathematical skills, the wider debate was far removed from the reality. Many mechanics required far more elementary lessons in mathematics before the advanced classes could even be attempted.  Although mathematics and science initially formed the centre of the curriculum at Birkbeck in the 1820s, by 1830 the reality of need had been discovered: advanced classes had been removed altogether, and instruction in elementary arithmetic was given to vast numbers of members. This was to continue to be the reality for much of the next 30 years.

How far, then, the raging debates about the inclusion of mathematics in the curricula of new centres for working-class education impacted the trajectory, is still a topic for debate.

Further information: 

 

Share
. Reply . Category: College, Social Sciences History and Philosophy . Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

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.

Share
. 1 comment . Category: College . Tags: , , , , , , ,

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: 

 

Share
. Read all 2 comments . Category: College, Social Sciences History and Philosophy . Tags: , ,

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.

Further information:

Share
. Reply . Category: College . Tags: ,

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. 

Share
. Reply . Category: College . Tags: , ,

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/

Share
. Reply . Category: College . Tags: