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Birkbeck celebrates its 200th anniversary

The University’s staff, students and alumni have been commemorating the bicentenary throughout 2023 and this weekend officially marks the milestone.

Announcement of the first public meeting to discuss founding the London Mechanics' Institute, dated 1823
Announcement of the first public meeting to discuss founding the London Mechanics' Institute (1823)

Today (Saturday 2 December 2023), Birkbeck, University of London, which pioneered lifelong learning and the extension of a high-quality research-led university education to all for whom it may be of benefit, commemorates its two hundredth anniversary.

The idea of establishing a college to educate working Londoners was initiated on 11 November 1823 when the philanthropist, George Birkbeck, gave a speech in front of a crowd of over 2000 people at the Crown and Anchor tavern on The Strand.

On 2 December 1823, the London Mechanics’ Institute, which later became Birkbeck, was founded.

In late Georgian England, educating working people was seen as so radical that Birkbeck was accused of ‘scattering the seeds of evil’ but he proceeded with his vision, famously commenting, “Now is the time for the universal benefits of the blessings of knowledge.”

Seven years after it was founded, the London Mechanics’ Institute took another revolutionary step – it became one of the first adult education colleges to admit women.

The notion that educating the masses was inherently wrong lingered for some time. It took a further 97 years and much debate before Birkbeck was admitted to the University of London in 1920. Then in 2018 the University of London Act allowed Birkbeck, along with the other members of the University of London, to become universities in their own right, whilst remaining members of the federation.

Prior to its move to its Malet Street location in 1952, Birkbeck had survived the disruption and turmoil of two World Wars and was the only college to remain open in London during World War II.

Although Birkbeck has remained true to its founding mission: improving lives through lifelong learning and enabling those who might not otherwise be able to access a high-quality university education, to do so, much has changed during its 200-year history. It is now a world leading teaching and research university, operating from a campus in the heart of London which attracts a range of students from 18 to 80 years of age from 120 countries across the world.

Professor David Latchman, Vice-Chancellor, who has led Birkbeck for the past twenty years said, “I am really pleased to be a part of this important milestone in Birkbeck’s history.

“I truly believe that our success and longevity hinges on our reputation for enabling students to fulfill their dreams and their academic potential.

“There is no average Birkbeck student. Our students come from all backgrounds and walks of life, and they bring their incredible life experiences to our classrooms, enriching the learning experience.

“Birkbeck’s students and research have been making a huge impact on the world for 200 years and I have no doubt they will be doing so for another 200 years to come.”

The build-up to the anniversary has included a 200th anniversary lecture series, an exhibit of archives and talk series held by the Library for students and staff, on topics including Part-time and mature students at Birkbeck and Birkbeck during the Wars; and will culminate later in December with events for alumni and staff.

Further Information

Watch the video of 200th anniversary reflections from Birkbeck students and staff

Find out more about Birkbeck’s 200th anniversary

Watch the video from Professor Emerita, Joanna Bourke on the history of the foundation of Birkbeck

Further information about Birkbeck’s archive collection

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