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History of Birkbeck

Birkbeck has been helping people access higher education and transform their lives for 200 years. We have an illustrious, unconventional and radical history of which we are very proud. 

The Founding of the College

Birkbeck was founded on the evening of 11 November 1823, when around 2000 people flocked to the Crown and Anchor Tavern on the Strand to hear Dr George Birkbeck speak on the importance of educating the working people of London. Supporters present at the event including Jeremy Bentham, the philosopher and originator of Utilitarianism, Sir John Hobhouse, a Radical MP who held several important government posts across his career, and Henry Brougham, a liberal MP, anti-slavery campaigner and tireless educational reformer. 

Following this initial meeting, the London Mechanics’ Institute was formally created at the same location on 2 December 1823, with the stated aim of educating working people. 

This foundation meant that, for the first time, artisans and craftspeople could learn about science, art and economics: a concept so controversial that George Birkbeck was accused of 'scattering the seeds of evil'. Undeterred, George Birkbeck called his supporters to action: 'Now is the time for the universal benefits of the blessings of knowledge.' Many donors were convinced by the important mission and enough money was raised to open the Institution and pursue a radical new vision. 

Leading the Way

Seven years later, in 1830, the Institute took a further radical step by becoming one of the first colleges to admit women as students - nearly 40 years before the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge. 

In 1858, the ratification of the University of London’s Charter meant that any student could sit degree examinations. Birkbeck fast became the best choice for students who wanted a university education but could not afford to study full-time.

This role was formalised in 1920 when Birkbeck officially became part of the University of London, on the understanding that it would continue to offer evening study. 

Key moments in Birkbeck's history 

  • 1776: Birth of George Birkbeck.
  • 1823: Birkbeck is founded as the London Mechanics' Institute. 
  • 1825: The Institute moves to the Southampton Buildings, Chancery Lane. 
  • 1830: Women are admitted as members.
  • 1841: Death of George Birkbeck.
  • 1866: The Mechanics’ Institute changes its name to the Birkbeck Literary and Scientific Institution. 
  • 1885: Birkbeck moves to the Breams Building, Fetter Lane (though the building was finished in 1884).
  • 1891: Birkbeck is one of three institutions to form the federal City polytechnic.
  • 1907: The Institution is renamed Birkbeck College, although the name started appearing on documents in 1903.
  • 1913: Lord Haldane's Royal Commission recommends Birkbeck becomes London's evening university.
  • 1914-18: One in four Birkbeck staff and students who enlist in the First World War are killed in action. 
  • 1920: Birkbeck becomes part of the University of London. 
  • 1926: Birkbeck receives its Royal Charter.
  • 1939-45: Birkbeck is the only university in London to stay open during the Blitz. 
  • 1944: On 19 July at 3:07am a V1 rocket destroys Birkbeck's library and a large part of Breams Buildings.
  • 1950: Britain’s third computer is developed at Birkbeck by Professor Andrew D. Booth.
  • 1952: Birkbeck moves to the new Malet Street building, which is officially opened by Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother. 
  • 1960s and 1970s: Several new departments are opened, including Economics, Organizational Psychology, Applied Linguistics, and Politics. 
  • 1983-89: Betty Lockwood (Baroness) becomes the College's first female President.
  • 1986: A campaign by Birkbeck's staff and students, backed in Parliament and The Times, overturns a cut of £2million to its government funding.
  • 1987-1997: Tessa Blackstone (Baroness) becomes the College's first female Master.
  • 1995: The College is authorised to confer degrees of the University of London on its students and to appoint, and confer titles of professor, reader and teacher of the University.
  • 2003: Birkbeck wins the TV quiz show University Challenge. The Malet Street building is extensively redeveloped and reopened by the Chancellor of the University of London, HRH Princess Anne. 
  • 2005: In the first ever National Student Survey, Birkbeck comes joint top in the country for teaching and is rated seventh in the country overall. 
  • 2007: Birkbeck begins to offer courses to students in Stratford, East London. 
  • 2010: Professor David Latchman, Master of Birkbeck, is awarded a CBE in the Queen's birthday honours, for services to Higher Education. 
  • 2016: The College introduces the Compass Project to support asylum seekers into education.
  • 2021: Opened 373 Euston Road (Cambridge House) to students.
  • 2021: David Latchman becomes the first Vice-Chancellor of the College. 
  • 2021: Birkbeck launches Vision 2021-26, its five-year corporate strategy.
  • 2022: Birkbeck Central, next to the Malet Street campus, is opened creating an integrated campus running along Torrington Square, bounded on the other side by the Clore building, Toddlerlab and Babylab.
  • 2023: Birkbeck celebrates its 200th anniversary.

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