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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Cameron’s Human Rights Headache?

This post was contributed by Dr Ben Worthy, lecturer in the Department of Politics

Human-RightsAs a newly elected Prime Minister, you wait around for one European problem then two come along at once. While David Cameron is trying to deal with his EU referendum promise, another ‘European’ problem has reared its head in the Queen’s Speech. The Conservatives promised to repeal the Human Rights Act 1998 and replace it with a British Bill of Rights-see this full fact analysis for background. The Conservative manifesto stated that:

The next Conservative Government will scrap the Human Rights Act, and introduce a British Bill of Rights

The Conservatives would draw up a new Bill of Rights that ended the controversial link with the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, treating their rulings as advisory and giving power back to the UK’s Supreme Court. But it looks like the commitment has at least been slowed down – to a promise to consult rather than, as was suggested, to have proposals ready in the first 100 days.

What’s caused the re-think?

The Human Rights Act is surrounded by layers of myths and half-truths. The claim is that the Act creates a set of new rights (it doesn’t, it just adds them to UK law), that it allows judges, and particularly judges from the European Court of Human Rights, to challenge and change British law (it doesn’t really, just lets them declare it ‘incompatible’) and undermines Parliament’s power (which is actually preserves)-see this famous speech by Lord Bingham. This guide to the Act concluded ‘the Government also acknowledged that a series of damaging myths about the Act had taken root in the popular imagination’.

However, the Human Rights Act has become a symbol of ‘European’ interference in ‘our’ politics and abuse of laws designed to protect us. So David Cameron is trying to change something because of what people think it is doing rather than what it is.

So why has Cameron slowed down?

Like any good politician, Cameron has looked across the battlefield and foreseen what could happen. Let’s run a little thought experiment and imagine that he and Michael Gove can draw up a new Bill of British Rights and Responsibilities, one that better reflects British values (putting aside whether it breaks any treaty obligations etc). They can send it, at least in a draft form, to Parliament and repeal the Human Rights Act. At this point, the fun would begin.

In the House of Commons, his own party is deeply divided-and even invoking the classic ‘what would Winston Churchill say’ line hasn’t helped. Some Conservatives oppose any ‘reduction’ in human rights, with one ‘senior’ politician this weekend rumoured to be considering resigning and a group of influential conservative MPs ready to oppose anything they see as a ‘weakening’ of rights.

On the other side, his Eurosceptic [or Euroexit] MPs are keen for something very different that ‘breaks’ the ‘formal link’ with the ECHR and reflects UK values. So the new Bill would have to be a masterpiece that balances these two viewpoints – different from the old Act but not giving less protection.

The truce is fragile

Dr Ben Worthy

Dr Ben Worthy

Cameron’s party, for the moment, is holding off rebellions but the truce is fragile and one issue they do like rebelling about is Europe. Just to make things more tricky for a Prime Minister with a small majority, opposite his own party the new block of 56 SNP MPs, 8 Lib-Dems and the whole of the Labour party are all firmly against scrapping the Act.

Then we get to the House of Lords. Technically the House of Lords cannot block anything promised in a manifesto-but in this case it isn’t so clear cut. The government can’t rush them to any decisions and the Lords can block legislation for some time and even ‘filibuster’ (talk until legislation is dropped).

In the House of Lords the Conservatives do not have a majority and there’s a big healthy dollop of Labour and angry Lib-Dems (there’s only 8 Lib Dem MPs but 104 highly engaged Lib-Dem Peers). Added to this, it’s full of lawyers and experts who see themselves as protectors of civil liberties. The second chamber has already issued warnings that any repeal or new bill won’t get through.

Cameron’s headache may become a migraine

So, piloting this through the House of Lords and House of Commons is very tricky. It’s at this point that Cameron’s Human Rights headache may become a migraine. The Human Rights Act 1998 is deeply tied up in the devolution settlement to Scotland, Wales and, especially, Northern Ireland, where it is embedded in the peace process.

Legally, as Mark Elliot points out, it seems Westminster can just about push a new Bill of Rights across the UK. But politically it will be extremely difficult and it’s possible that Scotland may refuse to co-operate. The ultimate danger is that, as pointed out here, a British Bill, opposed in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, could become an English Bill.

So what could Cameron do? Playing for time seems a good idea. How about a referendum?

 Find out more

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