Birkbeck College archive

Scope and Content

This collection comprises the surviving institutional records of Birkbeck, University of London, dating from its foundation as the London Mechanics' Institute in 1823 to c.2015. Much of the material derives from the central running of the university, being minutes of its governing bodies and their committees, financial records of its administration, prospectus, calendars and annual reports. There also programmes of events and texts of addresses and lectures given at the college, a full series of press cuttings and some photographs.

The earlier history is better represented than the post-1950s. There is little biographical information about students apart from their degree results and a small run of early admission and payment registers. Nor is there anything in the way of personal papers of either the university's senior or junior members.

Administrative / Biographical History

Birkbeck was founded as The London Mechanics' Institute in 1823. In 1866 it was renamed the Birkbeck Literary and Scientific Institution, after its first president, George Birkbeck. The name was shortened to Birkbeck College in 1907. In 1921 Birkbeck became a constituent College of the University of London, and it received the Royal Charter in 1926. Since 2002 it has been known as Birkbeck, University of London.

The London Mechanics' Institute was established at a public meeting at the Crown and Anchor Tavern on the Strand, on 3 December 1823. It's stated aim was "to provide for persons who are engaged in earning their livelihood during the daytime" by offering part-time classes in the evening. It sought to attract skilled manual labourers and machine operators, then known as 'mechanics'. At the time there was no other provision for adult evening education in London.

The Institute was founded by a group of men led by George Birkbeck (1776-1841), a physician and academic who had previously set up free Mechanics Classes in Glasgow. The founding group also included Joseph Robertson, Thomas Hodgskin, Jeremy Bentham, J C Hobhouse MP and Henry Brougham MP. Their vision was to give working men instruction "in the principles of the arts they practice, and the various branches of science and useful knowledge". This idea was not universally popular, with some opponents fearing that educating working men would lead to a revolution. St James' Chronicle , in May 1925, accused Birkbeck and his supporters of "designing the ruin of the country."

The Institute was set up on a membership basis. Mechanics paid an annual subscription to attend classes and lectures. The original aim was for the Institute to be funded entirely by members' subscriptions so it was in the hands of its members. However, not enough money was raised so it began to take donations from wealthy liberal benefactors. This led to a split among the founders, with Robertson and some others leaving.

Initially, only men could become members of the Institute. Women could attend some of the lecture series when members bought tickets for them. In June 1830, the rules changed to allow women to become members.

The London Mechanics Institute was managed by a Committee and a number of sub-committees. One of the founding principles was that it would be partially controlled by those being taught, so working men were on the Committee and all members had a vote at General Meetings.

Early meetings of the Institute were held at the Crown and Anchor Tavern in the Strand. In 1824 the Institute moved to its own premises in Southampton Buildings, Chancery Lane. In 1884 a generous donation from Francis Ravenscroft, of the robe-making firm Ede and Ravenscroft, helped to pay for a move to Breams Buildings on Fetter Lane.

The early curriculum set store by the facts of chemistry and mechanical philosophy. It soon expanded to offer a wide range of classes, including music and elocution. 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. The governance structure of the College was defined in its Royal Charter of 1926.

In the Second World War, Birkbeck was the only university in London to stay open during the Blitz. Despite damage to some College buildings, teaching continued.

After the war, Birkbeck entered a period of expansion. In 1945, it awarded its first PhD. JD Bernal opened his Biomolecular Research Laboratory and Andrew Booth developed some of Britain's earliest computers to help with Bernal's crystallography research. Booth went on to found Birikbeck's School of Computer Science, which was the first academic computing department in the UK.

In 1952, Birkbeck moved to a new building in Malet Street, Bloomsbury, which was officially opened by Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother. During the 1960s-70s, several new departments opened, including Economics, Occupational Psychology, Applied Linguistics, and Politics. In 1988, the University of London's Department of Extra-Mural Studies joined Birkbeck, becoming the Centre for Extra-Mural Studies and later the Faculty of Continuing Education.

In 1993, a new Charter provided Birkbeck with up-to-date powers but remained true to its original purpose "to provide for persons who are engaged in earning their livelihood during the daytime". In 2002 the College was rebranded as Birkbeck, University of London. It began to offer courses to students at a second campus in Stratford, East London from 2007. By 2015 over half of Birkbeck's students were postgraduate.

Notable Birkbeck staff include Dame Helen Gwynne-Vaughan, CEM Joad, JD Bernal, Andrew Booth, Rosalind Franklin, Nikolaus Pevsner and Eric Hobsbawn. Alumni include Annie Besant, Sidney Webb, Ramsay McDonald and Marcus Garvey.

Further Information
A more detailed history, and outline of the governance structure, is available on the Birkbeck, University of London website .


The core management and administrative records are divided into functional sub-fonds as follows: Corporate Governance, Membership & Student Administration, Academic Governance, General Administration, Library Management, Estates and Premises Management, Financial Management and Staffing & Employment. These sub-fonds are arranged in chronological order by the earliest volume in each. They are followed by sub-fonds for Events & Special Occasions records, Publications, Students Union & Societies' records, Press Cuttings and Photographs. At the end of the collection there are additional records from Birkbeck School and the Friends of Birkbeck, which both developed from the College.

Within each sub-fond, records are arranged chronologically in series based on provenance.

Access Information

Records are open for consultation except as specified in the descriptions of individual series or items.

Under the Data Protection Act, records containing personal information about members of staff are closed for 75 years from the date of the record. Records containing personal information about students are closed for 80 years from date of completion of their degree.

Birkbeck will answer simple enquiries free of charge by email. We cannot undertake detailed research for users but we can provide advice about the scope of the records for particular topics. Access to visitors is by appointment only. Please email Emma Illingworth at Birkbeck Library.

Other Finding Aids

An item level list of records in the collection is available as a Word file. Please email Emma Illingworth at Birkbeck Library to request a copy.

Archivist's Note

This description was created by Vicky Rea, Birkbeck College Project Archivist, in January 2018

Conditions Governing Use

Permission to publish material from the collection must be sought in advance from Birkbeck and, where appropriate, the copyright holder.

Most of the material in the collection is copyright of Birkbeck, University of London. Material that is third party copyright is noted in the descriptions at series or item level. The Library will assist where possible with identifying copyright owners, but responsibility for ensuring copyright clearance rests with the user of the material.

Appraisal Information

No formal appraisal has taken place

Custodial History

The collection comprises the internally produced records of Birkbeck, University of London, with occasional items collected by it. Historic records have been transferred to the College Secretary's Office on an ad hoc basis.


Some accruals of historic material are expected from departments or offsite storage, but the archive is essentially a closed collection with no system in place for regular accruals of modern records.

Related Material

The Album of Mrs Birkbeck
Original and digital copy held at Birkbeck Library.
Anna Birkbeck's 250 page album. The diary spans the years 1825 to circa 1862, and contains contributions from noted intellects of the day, including an unpublished poem by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, entitled The Death of Love.

The Scrapbook of Mrs Birkbeck
Original and digital copy held at Birkbeck Library.


A Short History of Birkbeck College by C. Delisle Burn (London: University of London Press, 1924)

A History of Birkbeck College University of London During the Second World War, 1939-1945 by E H Warmington (London: Birkbeck College, c. 1950)

The London Mechanics' Institution: Social and Cultural Foundations 1823-1830 by Flexner, HH (Doctoral thesis , University College London, 2014)