Heriot-Watt College

Scope and Content

Records of Heriot-Watt College, 1885 - 1966

Administrative / Biographical History

Heriot-Watt College traces a direct line of descent from the School of Arts of Edinburgh, founded in 1821 to bring science and technology education within the reach of working class students, and its successor body, the Watt Institution and School of Arts. In 1885 the future of this pioneering body was secured when the endowment of the Watt Institution and School of Arts merged with the trust bequeathed to Edinburgh in 1623 by George Heriot, who had been goldsmith and financier for King James VI and I. In recognition of the merger, the Institution was henceforth known as Heriot-Watt College. The former Directors of the Watt Institution became life Governors of George Heriot's Trust and formed the nucleus of the Trust's Heriot-Watt College Committee. The initial priorities of this management committee were to extend, improve and remodel the College's buildings at Chambers Street, Edinburgh, and to strengthen its academic credentials. The College appointed its first Professors, of Mechanics and Engineering, Chemistry, and Physics in 1887 and of Physics and Electrical Engineering in 1889. The curriculum of the College for Session 1889 is described in the Calendar as being

'completed by the institution of day classes providing the higher General and Technical Education now so urgently required'.

However, these day classes only represented a very small proportion of the work of the College whose main energies were concentrated on evening classes in Art, Trade, Technical, Language and Commercial subjects.

In 1902 the Scotch Education Department granted the College the coveted rank of Central Institution. In 1904 the Associateship of Heriot-Watt College was instituted, awarded on the completion of a three or four year full-time course in certain technical Departments. At the same time the academic curriculum developed apace, with a strong emphasis on the needs of industry. 1905 saw the introduction of a new course in Technical Mycology and the opening of a new Bacteriology Laboratory. In 1908 a Printing Department was established and new engineering laboratories were opened. In response to demand from the coal industry, classes in Mining, first offered in 1904, were consolidated in 1913 within a Department of Mining. In 1923, the Department gained its own Professor when the Hood Chair of Mining Engineering was established jointly with the University of Edinburgh. Meanwhile, in 1919 systematic courses in Pharmacy were introduced within the Department of Chemistry, as were new classes in Physical Chemistry, Fuel Science, Metallurgy and Intermediates.

By 1925 it was clear that the continued expansion of the College was increasingly circumscribing the financial resources of George Heriot's Trust. Accordingly, in 1927 a 'Confirmation Act' set up the College as an independent body with its own Board of Governors. However, George Heriot's Trust continued to support the College with a fixed annual payment.

The growth of the College's curriculum and its success in attracting increased student numbers fuelled the need for additional accommodation. In 1928 brewery premises in Edinburgh's Grassmarket, purchased in 1914 and used for the College's Mine Rescue Station, were remodelled for use by the Mining Department. In 1933 the College unveiled an ambitious scheme for a threefold expansion on a site of three and a half acres extending north from Chambers Street to the Cowgate. In 1935 the first extension, a three-storey block fronting the Cowgate, was opened housing the Printing Department, a Gymnasium and Dining Hall. In 1938 the second extension of seven storeys opened, housing the College Library, laboratories, drawing offices, a lecture theatre and common rooms. In 1951 additional premises in the Grassmarket were provided for the developing Department of Pharmacy, opened in 1952. This was closely followed in 1953 by the opening of a new building in the Grassmarket for the Mine Rescue Station. In 1958 the third extension opened, housing the College's Albert Thomson Memorial Hall, Court Room, two lecture theatres, and teaching and laboratory facilities for the Departments of Chemistry, Chemical Engineering and Physics. That year also saw the first extension to the rapidly expanding Department of Pharmacy. In 1961 the fourth extension, an additional storey above the first extension building in the Cowgate, was constructed to accommodate the Department of Brewing and Applied Biochemistry. The Department's new laboratories opened formally in 1963. In the Grassmarket, the Mountbatten building was built to house the Department of Electrical Engineering and Industrial Administration. By the time it opened in 1968, Heriot-Watt College had gained University status.

The physical expansion was more than matched by the academic development of the College. In 1933 the College affiliated with the University of Edinburgh, thus strengthening collaboration between the two institutions in Mechanical and Electrical Engineering and Technical Chemistry. This partnership was consolidated in 1955 by the establishment of a joint Chair and Department of Chemical Engineering. Courses in building subjects had first been introduced as evening classes in 1886 and until 1934 fell within the academic remit of the Department of Mechanical Engineering. In that year a separate Department of Building was established to offer tuition up to Associateship standard. The Department had to wait until 1965 for its first professor. In 1935 the Managers of the Royal Dispensary School of Pharmacy transferred its teaching of Pharmacy to the College's School of Pharmacy, part of the Department of Chemistry. Pharmacy went on to become a separate Department in 1949 and gained its first Professor in 1965. In 1946 the Department of Physics was created. In 1950 Brewing, previously taught within the Chemistry Department, gained departmental status in its own right and its own Chair of Brewing and Industrial Fermentation. In 1953 the College introduced a new Associateship course in Civil Engineering provided by the Department of Mechanical Engineering. The creation of a Chair in Civil Engineering duly followed in 1962, along with a Chair in Mathematics. From 1950 the College offered classes leading to the Intermediate Certificate and Diploma in Management Studies. This led to the establishment in 1955 of the Department of Industrial Administration and Commerce and the appointment of its first Professor ten years later.

In 1951 the Fellowship of Heriot-Watt College was instituted. This was an award of postgraduate standard conferred on the presentation of a sufficiently meritorious thesis. The Fellowship could also be awarded honoris causa. By the 1960s the College's Associateships and fellowships were acknowledged to be the equivalent of degrees and doctorates in all but name. This was recognised by the Government Committee on Higher Education chaired by Lord Robbins, which recommended in 1963 that the College be awarded University status. Accordingly in 1966, Heriot-Watt University was created by Royal Charter and entered a new era of academic achievement.


The collection is listed and arranged chronologically according to provenance.

Access Information

By appointment. Closure periods may apply to unpublished records less than 75 years old and other records containing personal information. Access to records in a fragile condition may be restricted.

Other Finding Aids

The collection is listed and arranged chronologically according to provenance.

Conditions Governing Use

Photocopies and photographic copies can be supplied for educational use and private study purposes only, depending on the condition of the documents. Permission to publish material from the Archive must be sought in advance from the University Archivist. Responsibility for obtaining copyright clearance rests with the applicant.

Custodial History

The records were inherited by Heriot-Watt University as successor body to Heriot-Watt College.


Further accurals are expected.

Related Material

Records of predecessor bodies; School of Arts and Watt Institution and School of Arts (GB 582 HWUA SA), and successor body, Heriot-Watt University (GB 582 HWUA HWU). Students Representative Council (GB 582 SRC). Duplicate copies of some items are available for consultation in the Searchroom.


  • Heriot-Watt University: From Mechanics Institute to Technological University 1821-1973,Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh, July 1973
  • Leslie A. Wallace, 1921-1992: a History of Physics at Heriot-Watt University,Heriot-Watt University, 1993
  • Alex Anderson and Brian G Gowenlock, Chemistry in Heriot-Watt 1821-1991,Heriot-Watt University, 1998
  • Heriot-Watt University History forthcoming.