"It was an opening not only of college doors, but of doors into a higher life for hundreds of men who have since shown how prompt and how able they were to pass over the threshold when the bolts were once withdrawn" (from an account of the evening classes at King's College London in Household Words, 18 December 1858, qtd in Hearnshaw 256).

Thanks to visionary and committed educationists like the physician George Birkbeck, and Professors F. D. Maurice and Henry Morley, the University of London reached out to enormous numbers of part-time and external students in the nineteenth century.

From the beginning, Birkbeck College, London, concentrated on teaching those unable to attend daytime courses. About 1,300 people enrolled in 1824, its first year of operation as the London Mechanics' Institution (Hearnshaw 27), paying an annual subscription of one guinea (1.1s) each (Shortland 488). This institution was followed by a whole wave of such institutions, which in some cases went on, like Birkbeck's, to become universities. Birkbeck's original foundation, having been renamed the Birkbeck Literary and Scientific Institution in 1866, became Birbeck College in 1907. Still catering for evening students, it became a constituent college of the University of London in 1913 (The History of Birkbeck online).

London Mechanics Instiution

The London Mechanics' Institution. Click on thumbnail for larger image.

In the spring of 1849, King's started making its own efforts to broaden its intake by launching evening classes on an experimental basis. This was a short-term project, but in 1855 a regular "Evening Department" was set up, offering systematic tuition in sixteen subjects ranging from languages to Chemistry: "The demand now came from the youth in the office or the shop, the clerk in the bank, the incompletely qualified teacher in the day school" (Hearnshaw 253). By 1867 there were nearly as many evening students at King's as day students. By all accounts, they were much more studious than the day students, "older, more serious, more eager to secure the education which the lecturers were ready to impart"; these lecturers were only too pleased to leave their unruly day classes for the "Elysium" created by such attentive audiences (Hearnshaw 254). King's was a pioneer in this area, for, in the earliest days, tuition at the mechanics' institutes, the Working Men's College and so on was still more general in nature, "for the intelligent curiosity of the unwashed artificers", as Birkbeck himself had once put it (qtd in Shortland 488). At King's, for the very first time, university-level courses spanning three or four years were accessible to part-time students. Amongst those who took full advantage of this opportunity was Edward G. Clarke, who would go on to become Solicitor-General in 1886. One of the best-known people to enrol was Thomas Hardy, who studied modern languages at King's in 1859-60, while working for the London architect, Arthur Blomfield.

Notice in The Reader about scholarships and exhibitions at University College London.

Click on image to enlarge it.

The popularity of such classes grew both from the demand for higher education (something shown so well in Hardy's own Jude the Obscure, 1895), and, more generally, from the desire to use new leisure opportunities to acquire some culture and perhaps move up a social class (think of Leonard Bast a little later, in E.M. Forster's Howards End, 1910). At University College as well weekly evening lectures were given in the 1867-68 session, and by 1868, when the University of London's arrangements for taking external degrees were well established, there was such a run on courses that might lead to them that as many as 3000 students were enrolled at Birkbeck alone — "a dramatic rise," according to Ben Weinreb and Christopher Hibbert (68). Now it was not even necessary to study in London to get a University of London degree. External students could take the examinations at approved centres elsewhere. One of the first centres was Owens College in Manchester, which would evolve into Manchester University. The University of London played such a vital role in fostering the newer English universities that the University of Keele, founded in 1962, "was the first English provincial university not to grow up under the aegis of the London degree syllabus" (Harte, The University of London 253).

The 1858 provision for sitting the examinations elsewhere sent lecturers from the University of London hurrying all over the country to give lectures (yet another example of how the railways impacted Victorian life). Henry Morley, the enthusiastic Unitarian who came over to University College from King's in 1865, and did so much for the cause of higher education for women, soon found himself taking the train to places as far away as Bradford, say, or Huddersfield on his lecture circuit (Harte, The Admission of Women 9). But this was nothing compared to what was to come. In 1865, too, the first examinations were administered abroad (in Mauritius). By the end of the Victorian period there were University of London examination centres across the world, from Newfoundland to Melbourne, and from 1920 it would be possible to sit for a degree in Shanghai, for instance, and a little later in Buenos Aries, Cairo and so forth. In the colonies, the University's presence was particularly useful: it played a unique and active role in fostering several university colleges on their way to full independence. The first to be taken under its wing was the Gordon Memorial College in Khartoum, which had grown from the school founded there by Lord Kitchener in 1898. Advisors and external examiners would now travel the globe to make sure that standards were being upheld at such establishments. It is no exaggeration to say that the Victorians had shaped the University of London into a truly global institution (Harte, The University of London, 170, 238, 252).


Harte, Negley. The Admission of Women to University College, London: A Centenary Lecture. London: University College London, 1979.

Harte, Negley. The University of London, 1836-1986. London: Athlone Press, 1986.

Hearnshaw, F.J.C. The Centenary History of King's College London. London: Harrap, 1929.

The History of Birkbeck. Viewed 10 February 2007.

Shortland, Michael. "Mechanics' Institutes." Victorian Britain, An Encyclopedia. New York & London: Garland, 1988: 487.

Weinreb, Ben and Christopher Hibbert, eds. "Birkbeck College." The London Encyclopedia. London: Macmillan, rev. ed. 1992.

Created 11 February 2007

Last modified 26 July 2016