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Aston Webb Blocks and Chancellor's Court

Chancellor's Court, Birmingham

The original buildings of the University of Birmingham, Edgbaston, on Chancellor's Court. Aston Webb & Ingress Bell. 1909. Accrington red brick with saucer domes, with some features reminiscent of Francis Bentley's Byzantine Westminster Cathedral of 1895-1903; it differs in style from Oxbridge colleges just as that cathedral was intended to differ from the Gothic Westminster Abbey (a point made in Foster 243). The buildings also owe something to the pavilion plan of recent hospitals like Sir George Gilbert Scott's Leeds General Infirmary, where wards diverge from a central front — though, surprisingly, the Great Hall, seen on the left here, was not originally intended to be in this position (see Ives et al. 115). The result is a very distinctive — indeed stunning — ensemble.

Left: The Great Hall. Right: View of the Aston Webb buildings from the left.

Stone dressings, especially on the entrance pavilion to the Great Hall, relieve the red brick. So do the main decorative elements — a row of nine statues by Henry Alfred Pegram over the main doorways, heraldic carving in the spandrels of the round-arched window, and a ceramic frieze by Robert Anning Bell higher up on the façade. Within their allotted spaces, these features complement rather than distract from the bold outlines of the buildings — a "geometry of squares and circles, cubes and hemispheres, perhaps inspired by [W. R.] Lethaby's Architecture. Mysticism and Myth (1892)" (Foster 243). Compare the broad arch and flanking verticals of the Great Hall's entrance to those of Charles Harrison Townsend's Whitechapel Art Gallery and Bishopsgate Institute: Townsend was much influenced by Lethaby.

Background and Building History

Left: Sir Josiah Mason (1795-1881), from Masterman, facing p. 86. Founder of Mason Science College, which became Mason University College in 1898, Mason made a fortune in pen-manufacture, electro-plating and so forth, and was knighted for founding a large orphanage in nearby Erdington. Right: The rather splendid neo-Gothic Mason College in 1960, taken by Phyllis Nicklin. It was demolished in 1962 (source: see headnote). To the right is the Chamberlain Memorial Fountain, which is still there today.

The roots of the university can be found in medical training offered in the city as early as the 1760s. But the main step towards it was taken in 1897. This was when an act was passed to incorporate Mason Science College, "legally incorporated in 1870 and taking its first students in 1880" (Ives et al. 7), as a University College. It was granted its royal charter in 1900, with local Liberal statesman Joseph Chamberlain (1836-1914) as its Chancellor. At this stage, the institution could only prepare students for degrees from the University of London. By now Manchester, Liverpool and Leeds had become the federal Victoria University, Leeds having joined the other two only in 1887. But as yet there was no independent civic university. "Largely owing to Mr. Chamberlain's efforts, a sum of over a quarter of a million was raised" (Masterman 83) for such a project here. One of the main contributors was the steel tycoon Andrew Carnegie, who stipulated the erection of new buildings.

As the "leading partnership of the day — architects par excellence of the late-Victorian establishment" (Ives et al.116), Aston Webb & Ingress Bell were selected for the task, and in 1901 work duly began in Edgbaston on "a great hall and blocks for mechanical engineering, civil engineering, electrical engineering and mining and metallurgy" ("The King," 11), in a semi-circular arrangement. As well as being entirely different from Oxbridge colleges, all this contrasted markedly with the neo-Gothic Mason College in town. Physics and Chemistry blocks were added at right angles to the main entrance, that is, to its east and west, but Webb's original design was never fully executed. Nevertheless, the University of Birmingham is still seen as "the first formally planned British university" — yet another influence on its design having been "the Beaux Arts layouts popular at American colleges in the 1890s" (Foster 242).

The Chamberlain Tower

Left: The Chamberlain Tower. Right: The lower part of the tower, with archway through to Chancellor's Court.

The separate tall tower commemorates the University's first Chancellor. It was modelled on the Torre del Mangia at Siena which Chamberlain and his wife had admired on a trip to Italy, and seems a stroke of genius now. Standing in line with the Great Hall, it gives access to Chancellor's Court through its archway, and seems to represent the core buildings as a beacon of learning for the Midlands. Indeed, it was described as such in the Birmingham Daily Post of the time (see Foster 245). It sets off the semi-circular group behind it to perfection, in this respect echoing the very tall campanile at Westminster Cathedral. It is 325' high and has a lift which travels up through its ten floors ("The Midlands," 15). The clock for the tower is itself rather extraordinary: "a massive 20-ton machine, with jewelled bearings and four bells, the largest weighing 6 tons 1 cwt" (Ives et al. 124).

The Interior of the Great Hall

Left to right: (a) The spacious hall reached through the entrance pavilion. (b) The barrel-vaulted ceiling with plaster embellishments. (c) Transverse vaulting along the sides.

The Great Hall with its organ and huge stained glass window marks the university out as a cathedral of learning, descended from the old forms, but on a new scheme — and with local relevance, for the plasterwork on the ceiling depicts the city and university arms (Foster 244). The importance of all this was quickly recognised. By the time it was opened, Liverpool and Leeds Universities had both struck out on their own, the former in 1903, and the latter in 1904. Speaking in the House of Lords on 24 July 1907, the Bishop of Hereford noted that Chamberlain had brought about a great change, destroying the concept of a "federated University," and instead promoting the idea that every great city should have its own such institution. In this way, said the bishop, he had raised "new hopes, new expectations, new ambitions" ("Parliament: The House of Lords," 6). This part of his speech was met by cheers. Yet there was never anything parochial about the new university's intake. Even in 1908, it already had students from "India, Japan, China, Brazil, Romania, France, Germany, and many of the Colonies" ("The Midlands," 15). Another feature of this forward-thinking institution was that women had been a part of the equation from the start: Showell's Dictionary of Birmingham reports that Mason Science College had 229 male students and 137 female students in the year ending on Founder's Day in 1884 (280).

Many more buildings have been added to the University of Birmingham's campus since those early days, especially during the 1960s, and some of them are very fine. New expectations had been raised for campus architecture as well. But Webb & Bell's original buildings are still the iconic ones here, the ones that best reflect this new milestone in British university life, born out of Victorian aspirations and realised by men of vision in a variety of fields.

Blue plaques for three of the many important people associated with the university: Nikolaus Pevsner, the architectural historian, and the authors Louis MacNeice and David Lodge. Others include Sir Edward Elgar, who was appointed Professor of Music here in 1905 (Ives et al. 150).

Related Material


Foster, Andy (some of this section contributed by Ian Dungawell). Birmingham. Pevsner Architectural Guides. New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2005. Print.

Ives, Eric William, et al. Birmingham: The First Civic University: An Introductory History. Birmingham: University of Birmingham Press, 2000. Print.

"The King: Birmingham University." The Times, 17 May 1909: 11. Times Digital Archive. Web. 18 February 2013.

"Mason College." University of Birmingham. Web. 18 February 2013.

Masterman, John Howard Betram. Birmingham (The Story of the English Towns series). London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1920. Internet Archive. Web. 17 February 2013.

"The Midlands: The Birmingham University." The Times, 30 December 1908: 15. Times Digital Archive. Web. 18 February 2013.

"Parliament: The House of Lords." The Times, 25 July 1907: 6. Times Digital Archive. Web. 18 February 2013.

Showell's Dictionary of Birmingham: A History and Guide, compiled by Thomas Harman. Birmingham: Cornish Brothers, 1885. Internet Archive. Web. 18 February 2013.

"University of Birmingham: A Brief History." University of Birmingham. Web. 18 February 2013.

Last modified 18 February 2013