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Visiting Birkbeck College, London: dating from 1823, a major institution of London University

Updated on January 26, 2015
Flag of England
Flag of England | Source
Birkbeck College, University of London.
Birkbeck College, University of London. | Source
Portrait of George Birkbeck, 3/4 length standing with bound "History of Mechanic's Institute, MSS" in hand , on table, by Henry Dawe after Samuel Lane, proof impression Iconographic
Portrait of George Birkbeck, 3/4 length standing with bound "History of Mechanic's Institute, MSS" in hand , on table, by Henry Dawe after Samuel Lane, proof impression Iconographic | Source
James Ramsay MacDonald
James Ramsay MacDonald | Source
Map location of London, England
Map location of London, England | Source

"In nocte consilium"

While architecturally not as striking as the buildings of some other Constituent Institutions of London University, Birkbeck College is a major institution within the University and, indeed, predates by a few years the founding of the University itself. Birkbeck College finds its origins in the London Mechanics' Institute, founded by George Birkbeck (1776-1841) in 1823. In 1920 it became a constituent college of the University of London.

The London Mechanics' Insitute changed its name to Birkbeck Literary and Scientific Institution in 1866. Since 1952 the College's main site has been in Malet Street, London.

Birkbeck specializes in part-time and evening classes (1), which is borne out by the College's Latin motto: In nocte consilium. (Interestingly, an owl and two lamps, both indicative of noctural activity, feature on the College's arms.) Extra-Mural studies and lifelong learning are important aspects of the College's activities.

Well-known alumnae of the College have included: Helen Porter (1899-1987), botanist; Margaret MacDonald (1907-1956), philosopher; Helen Sharman (1963-), cosmonaut and chemist; and many others.

Well-known alumni of the College have included: James Ramsay MacDonald (1866-1937), British Prime Minister 1924; 1929-1935; Sidney Webb, 1st Baron Passfield (1859-1947), founder of the London School of Economics; Marcus Garvey (1887-1940), Pan-African activist; and many others.

Distinguished faculty of Birkbeck College have included: Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958), composer; T. S. Eliot (1888-1965), OM, Nobel Prizewinning writer; Hugh Gaitskell (1906-1963), Leader of the British Opposition and of the Labour Party; and and many others.

The College's official name is now 'Birkbeck, University of London', thus one of a number of name changes that the College has undergone during the nearly two centuries of its existence. For many people it continues to be known as 'Birkbeck College', however.

Some institutions of learning have acquired the reputation — probably to some extent undeserved — for social exclusivity; this comment might be applied by some observers to some of the older Oxford and Cambridge Colleges. Birkbeck, on the other hand, has accumulated over its nearly two centuries of existence somewhat of a radical ethos; this is borne out by the number of political figures and social activists who have either studied or taught at the College. Having said this, the College faculty has included thinkers such as T. S. Eliot and Roger Scruton, widely regarded as conservative thinkers.

While the College Street's Malet Street headquarters are not widely reckoned to be architecturally significant, yet a visit to this distinguished academic institution can be combined with visits to London University's Senate House and University College London, both of which monumental and striking buildings are located only a short walking distance away.

January 26, 2015


(1) The College does also admit full-time research students.

Some sourcing: Wikipedia.

Birckbeck College, University of London
Birckbeck College, University of London | Source

Also worth seeing

London, England, has so many visitor attractions and historic buildings that it would be impossible to give an adequate summary of them here; but a very few of these include:

Trafalgar Square, with the National Gallery and Canada House; Buckingham Palace; Westminster Abbey; St Paul's Cathedral; the Houses of Parliament; the Tower of London; Tower Bridge; The Mall and Oxford Street are among the city's most famous thoroughfares. The University of London's Senate House and University College London are other fine, monumental structures.

Oxford (distance: 95 kilometres) an outstanding university city, with fine architecture; the Bridge of Sighs, the Radcliffe Camera and the Shedonian Theatre and Magdalen College are, among many other fine structures, worth seeing.

Cambridge (distance: 95 kilometres), another outstanding university city; among its architectural treasures are Senate House and King's College Chapel. The Backs on the Cam River, with the Bridge of SIghs at St. John's College, are especially picturesque.


How to get there

United Airlines flies from New York Newark Airport to London Heathrow Airport, where car rental is available. Underground and train services link Heathrow Airport with Central London; the nearest Underground Station to Birkbeck is Goodge Street on the Northern Line. Please note that some facilities may be withdrawn, without notice. Please check with the airline or your travel agent for up to date information.

MJFenn is an independent travel writer based in Ontario, Canada


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